To Kill an Ideology

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By Scott Stewart

A few weeks ago I wrote about how uncannily similar today's jihadists are to the anarchists who came a century before them. At the time I focused on the resemblance between the two groups' ideologies, global reach and aspirations, propaganda, appeal to grassroots followers, and use of new technology to further their agendas. But as I've had a chance to reflect on the topic in the weeks since, I've come to realize that their likenesses don't end there.

Celebrity Endorsement

For one, both types of terrorists rely on celebrity ideologues to recruit and radicalize new followers. Consider the modern jihadist movement, which has trotted out a procession of thought leaders to fill its ranks and fundraise. Figures from Abdullah Azzam and Omar Abdul-Rahman, known as the Blind Sheikh, to Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have traveled the world to promote their particular brands of Islam. These men have gained a level of influence rivaling that of their anarchist predecessors. Celebrity figures such as France's Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Russians like Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman and Mikhail Bakunin were instrumental in spreading anarchism throughout their regions and the globe. And they, like today's jihadists, inspired and sometimes plotted countless attacks.

Take the assassination of U.S. President William McKinley in 1901. His killer, Leon Czolgosz, was an anarchist who traveled to Chicago just weeks before the attack to meet with Emma Goldman, a comrade of Berkman's who had been involved in a failed plot to kill industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892. Authorities eventually determined that Goldman had rebuffed Czolgosz's proposals to work together in the assassination, fearing that he was a police informant sent to infiltrate her group. But his attempt to seek the help of other anarchists is eerily familiar. Failed "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab traveled to Yemen in 2009 to meet with al-Awlaki, who convinced him to try to bring down a passenger jet. Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan reached out to the al Qaeda leader via email as well ahead of his attack on the Texas military base the same year.

Celebrity ideologues don't have to have direct contact with potential recruits to radicalize and mobilize them, either. For instance, anarchist leaders proved critical to drawing in followers to fight in the Spanish Civil War, just as modern jihadist icons have had great success in sending men to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Life on the Run

Both anarchists and jihadists, meanwhile, have had to find homes away from home. Expelled from their countries because of their radical ideologies, many top leaders have sought refuge in havens around the globe. After escaping a gulag in Siberia, Russian revolutionary Bakunin traveled through the United States for a time before settling down in London. Johann Most, an advocate of terrorism and the coiner of the phrase "propaganda of the deed," likewise set up shop in London after being exiled from his native Germany. He later moved to New York after his public praise of Czar Alexander II's assassination landed him in a British prison, eventually helping Berkman to radicalize Goldman. Only a state away, Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani holed up in Patterson, New Jersey, after being deported from France and Switzerland for promoting violence. From the United States, Galleani called for terrorist attacks on American soil until he was sent back to Italy in 1919.

Sanctuary cities like London and New York had a lot to offer anarchists on the run. Freedom of speech and liberal attitudes afforded them a place to establish propaganda outlets, where they could print newspapers, books and speeches to attract readers to their causes — and to issue calls to arms.

Today's jihadists have followed in their footsteps. Under pressure to leave his native home of Saudi Arabia, bin Laden moved first to Sudan and then to Afghanistan. Al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, likewise fled to Egypt after getting out of jail. When the Blind Sheikh and al-Zarqawi were released from prison, they, too, found new homes in New Jersey and Afghanistan. In fact, the relocations of jihadist preachers like Abu Hamza al-Masri and Omar Bakri Muhammad have saddled the British capital with the nickname of "Londoninstan."

A Lesson in History

As is often true of unexpected patterns, we can draw valuable lessons from these groups' similarities. Chief among them is that it is very difficult to kill an ideology. After all, ideologies often outlast those who helped to create and spread them. Goldman, for example, died in 1940, but a shooting last month at a Baltimore anarchist bookstore named Red Emma's in her honor is a chilling reminder of how she — and her anarchist ideals — continue to shape people's actions and beliefs.

Following a rash of anarchist attacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the world's governments took steps to prevent further bloodshed. They worked to improve cross-border information sharing and liaison procedures, created new special agencies while expanding the jurisdiction of others, and instituted new immigration bans that denied entry to anarchists. But none of these measures had much of an impact on — much less destroyed — the concept of anarchism.

In fact, the Marxists' success in creating the Soviet Union likely did far more to curtail anarchism than these policies did, in part by drawing anarchists to the Marxist strain of socialism. The Marxists also brutally oppressed anarchists, labeling them "counterrevolutionaries," and figures such as Goldman and Berkman got a cold reception when they were deported to Russia in 1919. (Goldman even wrote two books chronicling her disillusionment with the Marxist government in Moscow.) But even harsh Marxist regimes didn't eradicate anarchism completely, and it continues to survive — and inspire — to this day, gaining momentum across the West as nationalism spreads.

If the anarchists' history is any indication, it is unreasonable to expect jihadism to die out anytime soon. Even if the movement's most influential leaders are killed, their vision will no doubt live on. Many of the most famous jihadists — bin Laden, Azzam, al-Zarqawi, al-Awlaki and the Blind Sheikh, to name a few — are already dead, yet jihadism is anything but. Because these figures were killed at the height of their international influence, it could even be argued that their sway will fade less after their demise than it would have if they had lived on, gradually losing standing to younger, more ambitious leaders. Either way, jihadism is here to stay. And as conflict continues to grip much of the Muslim world, jihadists will have no trouble finding sanctuary in places that offer shelter and a means to keep plotting and propagating their beliefs.

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